As Mines Shutter, Colorado Coal Counties Hope To Make Waste Profitable

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Photo: Elk Creek Mine Oxbow coal mine
Oxbow's now shuttered Elk Creek Mine in western Colorado.

Colorado has lost about half its coal mining jobs in less than a decade, according to the state labor department. Even with a presidential administration promising to reinvigorate the industry, many Western Colorado counties are trying to diversify their economies -- and even find other uses for defunct coal mines.

That's led local officials in Delta and Gunnison counties to look at the nearby Elk Creek Mine, shuttered by Oxbow Mining Company recently. In 2012, Oxbow agreed to work with a local utility company, Aspen Ski Company, and a Denver oil and gas entrepreneur to create a power plant that would convert methane leaking from the mine into electricity. It produces three megawatts of electricity, which the utility, Holy Cross Energy, says powers about 1,600 homes.

The entrepreneur, Tom Vessels, owns Vessels Coal Gas. He has spoken to county commissioners interested in the technology, and on Thursday he will speak to the Select Committee on Energy and the Environment in Colorado's state senate. While he says three megawatts is not much power, it makes use of an amount of methane equal to taking nearly 75,000 cars off the road each year, and that methane from the mine would otherwise seep into the atmosphere. Vessels says the technology could be scaled up, but there are challenges. Vessels spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.